Review: Can't Even, by Anne Helen Petersen

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sat Dec 19 20:38:37 PST 2020

Can't Even
by Anne Helen Petersen

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Copyright: 2020
ISBN:      0-358-31659-6
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     230

Like many other people, I first became aware of Anne Helen Petersen's
journalism when her Buzzfeed article "How Millennials Became the
Burnout Generation" went viral. Can't Even is the much-awaited (at
least by me) book-length expansion of that thesis: The United States
is, as a society, burning out, and that burnout is falling on
millennials the hardest. We're not recognizing the symptoms because we
think burnout looks like something dramatic and flashy. But for most
people burnout looks less like a nervous breakdown and more like
constant background anxiety and lack of energy.

  Laura, who lives in Chicago and works as a special ed teacher, never
  wants to see her friends, or date, or cook — she's so tired, she
  just wants to melt into the couch. "But then I can't focus on what
  I'm watching, and end up unfocused again, and not completely
  relaxing," she explained. "Here I am telling you I don't even relax
  right! I feel bad about feeling bad! But by the time I have leisure
  time, I just want to be alone!"

Petersen explores this idea across childhood, education, work, family,
and parenting, but the core of her thesis is the precise opposite of
the pervasive myth that millennials are entitled and lazy (a persistent
generational critique that Petersen points out was also leveled at
their Baby Boomer parents in the 1960s and 1970s). Millennials aren't
slackers; they're workaholics from childhood, for whom everything has
become a hustle and a second (or third or fourth) job. The struggle
with "adulting" is a symptom of the burnout on the other side of
exhaustion, the mental failures that happen when you've forced yourself
to keep going on empty so many times that it's left lingering damage.

Petersen is a synthesizing writer who draws together the threads of
other books rather than going deep on a novel concept, so if you've
been reading about work, psychology, stress, and productivity, many of
the ideas here will be familiar. But she's been reading the same
authors that I've been reading (Tressie McMillan Cottom, Emily
Guendelsberger, Brigid Schulte, and even Cal Newport), and this was the
book that helped me pull those analyses together into a coherent

That picture starts with the shift of risk in the 1970s and 1980s from
previously stable corporations with long-lasting jobs and retirement
pensions onto individual employees. The corresponding rise in precarity
and therefore fear led to a concerted effort to re-establish a feeling
of control. Baby Boomers doubled down on personal responsibility and
personal capability, replacing unstructured childhood for their kids
with planned activities and academic achievement. That generation, in
turn, internalized the need for constant improvement, constant grading,
and constant achievement, accepting an implied bargain that if they
worked very hard, got good grades, got into good schools, and got a
good degree, it would pay off in a good life and financial security.

They were betrayed. The payoff never happened; many millennials
graduated into the Great Recession and the worst economy since World
War II. In response, millennials doubled down on the only path to
success they were taught. They took on more debt, got more education,
moved back in with their parents to cut expenses, and tried even

  Even after watching our parents get shut out, fall from, or simply
  struggle anxiously to maintain the American Dream, we didn't reject
  it. We tried to work harder, and better, more efficiently, with more
  credentials, to achieve it.

Once one has this framework in mind, it's startling how pervasive the
"just try harder" message is and how deeply we've internalized it. It
is at the center of the time management literature: Getting Things Done
focuses almost entirely on individual efficiency. Later time management
work has become more aware of the importance of pruning the to-do list
and doing fewer things, but addresses that through techniques for
individual prioritization. Cal Newport is more aware than most that
constant busyness and multitasking interacts poorly with the human
brain, and has taken a few tentative steps towards treating the problem
as systemic rather than individual, but his focus is still primarily on
individual choices. Even when tackling a problem that is clearly
societal, such as the monetization of fear and outrage on social media,
the solutions are all individual: recognize that those platforms are
bad for you, make an individual determination that your attention is
being exploited, and quit social media through your personal force of

And this isn't just productivity systems. Most of public discussion of
environmentalism in the United States is about personal energy
consumption, your individual carbon footprint, household recycling, and
whether you personally should eat meat. Discussions of monopoly and
monopsony become debates over whether you personally should buy from
Amazon. Concerns about personal privacy turn into advocacy for using an
ad blocker or shaming people for using Google products. Articles about
the growth of right-wing extremism become exhortations to take
responsibility for the right-wing extremist in your life and argue them
out of their beliefs over the dinner table. Every major systemic issue
facing society becomes yet another personal obligation, another place
we are failing as individuals, something else that requires trying
harder, learning more, caring more, doing more.

This advice is well-meaning (mostly; sometimes it is an intentional and
cynical diversion), and can even be effective with specific problems.
But it's also a trap. If you're feeling miserable, you just haven't
found the right combination of time-block scheduling, Kanban, and
bullet journaling yet. If you're upset at corporate greed and the
destruction of the environment, the change starts with you and your
household. The solution is in your personal hands; you just have try a
little harder, work a little harder, make better decisions, and spend
money more ethically (generally by buying more expensive products). And
therefore, when we're already burned out, every topic becomes another
failure, increasing our already excessive guilt and anxiety.

Believing that we're in control, even when we're not, does have
psychological value. That's part of what makes it such a beguiling
trap. While drafting this review, I listened to Ezra Klein's interview
with Robert Sapolsky on poverty and stress, and one of the points he
made is that, when mildly or moderately bad things happen, believing
you have control is empowering. It lets you recast the setback as a
larger disaster that you were able to prevent and avoid a sense of
futility. But when something major goes wrong, believing you have
control is actively harmful to your mental health. The tragedy is now
also a personal failure, leading to guilt and internal recrimination on
top of the effects of the tragedy itself. This is why often the most
comforting thing we can say to someone else after a personal disaster
is "there's nothing you could have done."

Believing we can improve our lives if we just try a little harder does
work, until it doesn't. And because it does work for smaller things,
it's hard to abandon; in the short term, believing we're at the mercy
of forces outside our control feels even worse. So we double down on
self-improvement, giving ourselves even more things to attempt to do
and thus burning out even more.

Petersen is having none of this, and her anger is both satisfying and

  In writing that article, and this book, I haven't cured anyone's
  burnout, including my own. But one thing did become incredibly
  clear. This isn't a personal problem. It's a societal one — and it
  will not be cured by productivity apps, or a bullet journal, or face
  mask skin treatments, or overnight fucking oats. We gravitate toward
  those personal cures because they seem tenable, and promise that our
  lives can be recentered, and regrounded, with just a bit more
  discipline, a new app, a better email organization strategy, or a
  new approach to meal planning. But these are all merely Band-Aids on
  an open wound. They might temporarily stop the bleeding, but when
  they fall off, and we fail at our new-found discipline, we just feel

Structurally, Can't Even is half summaries of other books and essays
put into this overall structure and half short profiles and quotes from
millennials that illustrate her point. This is Petersen's typical
journalistic style if you're familiar with her other work. It gains a
lot from the voices of individuals, but it can also feel like argument
from anecdote. If there's a epistemic flaw in this book, it's that
Petersen defends her arguments more with examples than with scientific
study. I've read enough of the other books she cites, many of which do
go into the underlying studies and statistics, to know that her
argument is well-grounded, but I think Can't Even works better as a
roadmap and synthesis than as a primary source of convincing data.

The other flaw that I'll mention is that although Petersen tries very
hard to incorporate poorer and non-white millennials, I don't the
effort was successful, and I'm not sure it was possible within the
structure of this book. She frequently makes a statement that's
accurate and insightful for millennials from white, middle-class
families, acknowledges that it doesn't entirely apply to, for example,
racial minorities, and then moves on without truly reconciling those
two perspectives. I think this is a deep structural problem: One's
experience of American life is very different depending on race and
class, and the phenomenon that Petersen is speaking to is to an extent
specific to those social classes who had a more comfortable and
relaxing life and are losing it.

One way to see the story of the modern economy is that white people are
becoming as precarious as everyone else already was, and are reacting
by making the lives of non-white people yet more miserable. Petersen is
accurately pointing to significant changes in relationships with
employers, productivity, family, and the ideology of individualism, but
experiencing that as a change is more applicable to white people than
non-white people. That means there are, in a way, two books here: one
about the slow collapse of the white middle class into constant
burnout, and a different book about the much longer-standing burnout of
being non-white in the United States and our systemic failure to
address the causes of it. Petersen tries to gesture at the second book,
but she's not the person to write it and those two books cannot
comfortably live between the same covers. The gestures therefore feel
awkward and forced, and while the discomfort itself serves some
purpose, it lacks the insight that Petersen brings to the rest of the

Those critiques aside, I found Can't Even immensely clarifying. It's
the first book that explained to me in a way I understood what's so
demoralizing and harmful about Instagram and its allure of cosplaying
as a successful person. It helped me understand how productivity and
individual political choices fit into a system that emphasizes
individual action as an excuse to not address collective problems. And
it also gave me a strange form of hope, because if something can't go
on forever, it will, at some point, stop.

  Millennials have been denigrated and mischaracterized, blamed for
  struggling in situations that set us up to fail. But if we have the
  endurance and aptitude and wherewithal to work ourselves this deeply
  into the ground, we also have the strength to fight. We have little
  savings and less stability. Our anger is barely contained. We're a
  pile of ashes smoldering, a bad memory of our best selves.
  Underestimate us at your peril: We have so little left to lose.

Nothing will change without individual people making different
decisions and taking different actions than they are today. But we have
gone much too far down the path of individual, atomized actions that
may produce feelings of personal virtue but that are a path to
ineffectiveness and burnout when faced with systemic problems. We need
to make different choices, yes, but choices towards solidarity and
movement politics rather than personal optimization.

There is a backlash coming. If we let it ground itself in personal
grievance, it could turn ugly and take a racist and nationalist
direction. But that's not, by in large, what millennials have done, and
that makes me optimistic. If we embrace the energy of that backlash and
help shape it to be more inclusive, just, and fair, we can rediscover
the effectiveness of collective solutions for collective problems.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-12-19


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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